Cast a Long Shadow

Article excerpt

Cast a Long Shadow Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers By Michael Barone (CROWN, 339 PAGES, $25.95)

Reviewed by Robert D. Novak

ON NOVEMBER 5,1688, William the Prince of Orange led across the English Channel a 15,000-man Dutch army, the largest force to invade the British Isles since the Roman legions. Massive defections by English commanders and soldiers prompted King James II to flee to France, effectively transferring power to William. This massive conspiracy and successful coup d'etat, in the interpretation of Michael Barone, would inspire the American republic's liberties, from representative democracy to individual gun rights.

Such a strong connection between Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688 and American freedom over the centuries is not the consensus among academic historians. But Barone, a preeminent chronicler of the U.S. political scene, is not a historian as such and thus not restricted by that profession's precedents. In Our First Revolution, he presents a sweeping view of 17th-century English history and European power politics and masterfully traces reverberations that persist more than 300 years later.

With ancient feudal rights being overpowered by newly centralized states in 1688, "absolutism"-epitomized by the Sun King, Louis XIV of France-"seemingly modern and efficient, seemed the wave of the future," Barone writes. From Britain ("one corner of Europe"), however, there emerged "constitutional monarchy with limits on government, guaranteed rights, relatively benign religious toleration, and free market global capitalism." This in turn, writes Barone, was "the backdrop for the amazing growth, prosperity, and military success of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain-and for the American Revolution and the even more amazing growth, prosperity, and military success of the United States."

So, as these words in the book's first chapter promise, "our first revolution" is an American revolution-a promise fulfilled in the final chapter ("Revolutionary Reverberations"). In the intervening 230 pages, Barone uses his well-honed style of learned political analysis (familiar to political junkies, such as I, who devour his biannual Almanac of American Politics) to cover the period from the English Civil War to the Glorious Revolution for which Lord Macaulay needed five volumes of dense mid-19th century prose. Barone's genius is making fascinating what was massively boring in my school days and is now not even taught in America.

After Charles I was dethroned and executed and Britain's experiment with a republic ran its dismal course, the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II. He was childless, and the succession went to his brother, James, the Duke of York. "Charles was indolent and pacific; James was active and bellicose," Barone writes. After James directed the English military conquest of Dutch New Amsterdam (which became New York in his honor) and ably commanded the British fleet against the Dutch, James became a Catholic around 1668. In an era when the religion of the ruler was all-important and in a country that was over 90 percent Protestant, James's conversion promised a world of trouble.

Charles refused Protestant pleas to get rid of his barren wife and to reproduce a new heir apparent in place of his Catholic brother. James's two children were Protestant women, with Princess Mary, next in line of succession, married to the Presbyterian William of Orange, the Stadholder (chief executive) of the United Provinces (the future Netherlands). But widower James roiled the English scene when he married a 15-year-old Italian Catholic daughter of the Duke of Modena, threatening to bring about a long Catholic succession.

The politics of England, Barone writes, now revolved around "whether James, Duke of York, should be excluded from the throne" and produced an embryonic national two-party politics that "had within it the seeds of representative government. …